Gerard and Margaret went gaily to Sevenbergen in the first flush of recovered liberty, and successful adventure. But these soon yielded to sadder thoughts. Neither of them attached any importance to the abstraction of the sheepskins: but Gerard was an escaped prisoner, and liable to be retaken and perhaps punished; and therefore he and Margaret would have to part for a time. Moreover he had conceived a hatred to his native place.
Margaret wished him to leave the country for a while, but at the thought of his going to Italy her heart fainted. Gerard, on the contrary, was reconciled to leaving Margaret only by his desire to visit Italy, and his strong conviction that there he should earn money and reputation, and remove every obstacle to their marriage. He had already told her all that the demoiselle Van Eyck had said to him. He repeated it, and reminded Margaret that the gold pieces were only given him to go to Italy with.
The journey to Italy was clearly for Gerard’s interest. He was a craftsman and an artist, lost in this boorish place. In Italy they would know how to value him. On this ground, above all, the unselfish girl gave her consent: but many tender tears came with it, and at that Gerard, young and loving as herself, cried bitterly with her, and often they asked one another what they had done, that so many different persons should be their enemies, and combine, as it seemed, to part them.
They sat hand in hand till midnight, now deploring their hard fate, now drawing bright and hopeful pictures of the future, in the midst of which Margaret’s tears would suddenly flow, and then poor Gerard’s eloquence would die away in a sigh.
The morning found them resigned to part, but neither had the courage to say when; and much I doubt whether the hour of parting ever would have struck. But about three in the afternoon, Giles, who had made a circuit of many miles to avoid suspicion, rode up to the door. They both ran out to him, eager with curiosity. He soon turned that light feeling to dismay.
“Brother Gerard,” cried he, in his tremendous tones, “Kate bids you run for your life. They charge you with theft; you have given them a handle. Think not to explain. Hope not for justice in Tergou! The parchments you took they are but a blind. She hath seen your death in the men’s eyes: a price is on your head. Fly! For Margaret’s sake and all who love you, loiter not life away, but fly!”
It was a thunder-clap, and left two pale faces looking at one another, awestruck. Then Giles, who had hitherto but uttered by rote what Catherine bade him, put in a word of his own.
“All the constables were at our house after you, and so was Dirk Brower. Kate is wise, Gerard. Best give ear to her rede, and fly.”
“Oh, yes! Gerard,” cried Margaret, wildly. “Fly on the instant. Ah! those parchments; my mind misgave me: why did I let you take them?”
”Margaret, they are but a blind: Giles says so: no matter, the old caitiff shall never see them again; I will not go till I have hidden his treasure where he shall never find it.”
Gerard then, after thanking Giles warmly, bade him farewell, and told him to go back, and tell Kate he was gone.
“For I shall be gone, ere you reach home,” said he. He shouted for Martin; and told him what had happened, and begged him to go a little way towards Tergou, and watch the road.
“Ay!” said Martin, “and if I see Dirk Brower, or any of his men, I will shoot an arrow into the oak tree that is in our garden; and on that you must run into the forest hard by, and meet me at the wierd hunter’s spring. Then I will guide you through the wood.”
Surprise thus provided against, Gerard breathed again. He went with Margaret, and while she watched the oak tree tremblingly, fearing every moment to see an arrow strike among the branches, Gerard dug a deep hole to bury the parchments in.
He threw them in, one by one. They were nearly all charters and records of the burgh: but one appeared to be a private deed between Floris Brandt, father of Peter, and Ghysbrecht.
“Why this is as much yours as his,” said Gerard. “I will read this.”
“Oh, not now, Gerard, not now,” cried Margaret. “Every moment you lose fills me with fear; and see, large drops of rain are beginning to fall, and the clouds lower.”
Gerard yielded to this remonstrance: but he put the deed into his bosom, and threw the earth in over the others, and stamped it down. While thus employed there came a flash of lightning followed by a peal of distant thunder, and the rain came down heavily. Margaret and Gerard ran into the house, whither they were speedily followed by Martin.
“The road is clear,” said he, “and a heavy storm coming on.”
His words proved true. The thunder came nearer and nearer till it crashed over head: the flashes followed one another close, like the strokes of a whip, and the rain fell in torrents. Margaret hid her face not to see the lightning. On this, Gerard put up the rough shutter, and lighted a candle. The lovers consulted together, and Gerard blessed the storm that gave him a few hours more with Margaret.
The sun set unperceived, and still the thunder pealed, and the lightning flashed, and the rain poured. Supper was set; but Gerard and Margaret could not eat: the thought that this was the last time they should sup together, choked them. The storm lulled a little. Peter retired to rest. But Gerard was to go at peep of day, and neither he nor Margaret could afford to lose an hour in sleep. Martin sat up a while, too: for he was fitting a new string to his bow, a matter in which he was very nice. The lovers murmured their sorrows and their love beside him.
Suddenly the old man held up his hand to them to be silent. They were quiet and listened, and heard nothing. But the next moment a footstep crackled faintly upon the autumn leaves that lay strewn in the garden at the back door of the house. To those who had nothing to fear such a step would have said nothing: but to those who had enemies it was terrible. For it was a foot trying to be noiseless.
Martin fitted an arrow to his string, and hastily blew out the candle. At this moment, to their horror, they heard more than one footstep approach the other door of the cottage, not quite so noiselessly as the other, but very stealthily — and then a dead pause. Their blood almost froze in their veins.
“Oh, Kate! oh, Kate! She said, fly on the instant!” And Margaret moaned and wrung her hands in anguish and terror and wild remorse.
“Hush, girl!” said Martin, in a stern whisper; and even at that moment a heavy knock fell on the door. As if this had been a concerted signal, the hack-door was struck as rudely the next instant. They were hemmed in. But at these alarming sounds Margaret seemed to recover some share of self-possession. She whispered, “Say he was here, but is gone.” And with this she seized Gerard and almost dragged him up the rude steps that led to her father’s sleeping-room. Her own lay next beyond it.
The blows on the door were repeated.
“Who knocks at this hour?”
“Open, and you will see!”
“I open not to thieves — honest men are all a-bed now.”
“Open to the law, Martin Wittenhaagen, or you shall rue it.”
“Why that is Dirk Brower’s voice, I trow. What make you so far from Tergou?”
“Open, and you will know.”
Martin drew the bolt, and in rushed Dierich and four more. They let in their companion who was at the back-door.
“Now, Martin, where is Gerard Gerardssoen?”
“Gerard Gerardssoen? Why he was here but now.”
“Was here?” Dierich’s countenance fell. “And where is he now?”
“They say he is gone to Italy. Why? What is to do?”
“No matter. When did he go? Tell me not that he went in such a storm as this!”
“Here is a coil about Gerard Gerardssoen,” said Martin, contemptuously. Then he lighted the candle, and, seating himself coolly by the fire, proceeded to whip some fine silk round his bowstring at the place where the nick of the arrow frets it.
“I’ll tell you,” said he, carelessly. “Do you know his brother Giles — a little misbegotten imp all head and arms? Well, he came tearing over here on a mule, and bawled out something. I was too far off to hear the creature’s words, but I heard its noise. Any way, he started Gerard. For as soon as he was gone, there was such crying and kissing, and then Gerard went away. They do tell me he is gone to Italy — mayhap you know where that is, for I don’t.”
Dierich’s countenance fell lower and lower at this account. There was no flaw in it. A cunninger man than Martin would, perhaps, have told a lie too many, and raised suspicion. But Martin did his task well. He only told the one falsehood he was bade to tell, and of his own head invented nothing.
“Mates,” said Dierich, “I doubt he speaks sooth. I told the Burgomaster how ‘t would be. He met the dwarf galloping Peter Buysken’s mule from Sevenbergen. ‘They have sent that imp to Gerard,’ says he, ‘so, then, Gerard is at Sevenbergen. ‘—’ Ah, master!’ says I, ”tis too late now. We should have thought of Sevenbergen before, instead of wasting our time hunting all the odd corners of Tergou for those cursed parchments that we shall never find till we find the man that took ’em. If he was at Sevenbergen,’ quoth I, ‘and they have sent the dwarf to him, it must have been to warn him we are after him. He is leagues away by now,’ quoth I. ‘Confound that chalk-faced girl! she has outwitted us bearded men:’ and so I told the Burgomaster, but he would not hear reason. A wet jerkin a-piece, that is all we shall get, mates, by this job.”
Martin grinned coolly in Dierich’s face.
“However,” added the latter, “just to content the Burgomaster, we will search the house.”
Martin turned grave directly. This change of countenance did not escape Dierich. He reflected a moment.
“Watch outside two of you, one on each side of the house, that no one jump from the upper windows. The rest come with me.”
And he took the candle and mounted the stairs, followed by three of his comrades. Martin was left alone. The stout soldier hung his head. All had gone so well at first: and now this fatal turn! Suddenly it occurred to him that all was not yet lost. Gerard must be either in Peter’s room or Margaret’s; they were not so very high from the ground. Gerard would leap out. Dierich had left a man below; but what then? For half a minute Gerard and he would be two to one, and in that brief space, what might not be done?
Martin then held the back-door ajar and watched. The light was in Peter’s room. “Curse the fool!” said he, “is he going to let them take him like a girl?”
The light passed now into Margaret’s bedroom. Still no window was opened. Had Gerard intended to escape that way he would not have waited till the men were in the room. Martin saw that at once, and left the door, and came to the foot-stair and listened. He began to think Gerard must have escaped by the window while all the men were in the house.
The longer the silence continued the stronger grew this conviction. But it was suddenly and rudely dissipated. Piercing shrieks issued from the inner bedroom —Margaret’s.
“They have taken him,” groaned Martin; “they have got him.”
It flashed through Martin’s mind in one moment that if they took Gerard away his life was not worth a button; and that, if evil befell him, Margaret’s heart would break. He east his eyes wildly round like some savage beast seeking an escape, and in a twinkling he formed a resolution terribly characteristic of those iron times and of a soldier driven to bay.
He stepped to each door in turn, and imitating Dirk Brower’s voice, said sharply, ”Watch the window!” He then quietly closed and bolted both doors. He then took up his bow and six arrows; one he fitted to his string, the others he put into his quiver. His knife he placed upon a chair behind him, the hilt towards him; and there he waited at the foot of the stair with the calm determination to slay those four men, or be slain by them.
Two, he knew, he could dispose of by his arrows, ere they could get near him, and Gerard and he must take their chance, hand-to-hand, with the remaining pair. Besides, he had seen men panic-stricken by a sudden attack of this sort. Should Brower and his men hesitate but an instant, he should shoot three instead of two, and then the odds would be on the right side.
He had not long to wait. The heavy steps sounded in Margaret’s room, and came nearer and nearer. The light also approached, and voices. Martin’s heart, stout as it was, beat hard, to hear men coming thus to their death, and, perhaps, to his; more likely so than not; for four is long odds in a battle-field of ten feet square, and Gerard might be bound, perhaps, and powerless to help.
But this man, whom we have seen shake in his shoes at a Giles-o’-lanthorn, never wavered in this awful moment of real danger, but stood there, his body all braced for combat, and his eye glowing, equally ready to take life and lose it. Desperate game! to win which was exile instant and for life, and to lose it was to die that moment upon that floor he stood on.
Dierich Brower and his men found Peter in his first sleep. They opened his cupboards; they ran their knives into an alligator he had nailed to his wall; they looked under his bed: it was a large room, and apparently full of hiding places, but they found no Gerard.
Then they went on to Margaret’s room, and the very sight of it was discouraging — it was small and bare, and not a cupboard in it; there was, however, a large fire-place and chimney. Dierich’s eye fell on these directly. Here they found the beauty of Sevenbergen sleeping on an old chest, not a foot high, and no attempt made to cover it; but the sheets were snowy white, and so was Margaret’s own linen. And there she lay, looking like a lily fallen into a rut.
Presently she awoke, and sat up in the bed, like one amazed; then, seeing the men, began to scream violently, and pray for mercy. She made Dierich Brower ashamed of his errand.
“Here is a to-do,” said he, a little confused. “We are not going to hurt you, my pretty maid. Lie you still, and shut your eyes, and think of your wedding-night, while I look up this chimney to see if Master Gerard is there.”
“Gerard! in my room?”
“Why not? They say that you and he—”
“Cruel; you know they have driven him away from me— driven him from his native place. This is a blind. You are thieves; you are wicked men; you are not men of Sevenbergen, or you would know Margaret Brandt better than to look for her lover in this room of all others in the world. Oh brave! Four great hulking men to come, armed to the teeth, to insult one poor honest girl! The women that live in your own houses must be naught, or you would respect them too much to insult a girl of good character.”
“There, come away, before we hear worse,” said Dierich, hastily. “He is not in the chimney. Plaister will mend what a cudgel breaks; but a woman’s tongue is a double-edged dagger, and a girl is a woman with her mother’s milk still in her.” And he beat a hasty retreat. “I told the Burgomaster how ‘t would be.”